For these Victorian photographers, nature was a lens for truth
The Pre-Raphaelite Camera: Aspects of Victorian Photography, by Michael Bartram. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. (a New York Graphic Society book). 200 pp. Illustrated. $35. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that band of disgruntled British art students and acquaintances, initiated two styles in painting that endured internationally until World War I. The group's mercurial leader, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, favored a soft and luminous image, often of women caught between dream and desire. But it was the boy wonder, John Everett Millais, who crystallized what now, as then, was called photographic realism. In photography and in painting, the term Pre-Raphaelite became synonymous with the intense stare -- the artistic equivalent, perhaps, of the penetrating vision of science in the mid-19th century.
Pre-Raphaelite works disavowed the mitigation of atmosphere and distance. Like photographs produced through long exposures, the Pre-Raphaelite canvas was saturated with detail. The veins of leaves, the bark of trees, the spores of ferns, mycelia crawling silently in the forest mold: These obsessive details effectively broke up the picture plane into discrete fragments whose sum could not be taken in with a single glance.
It was, in one sense, portraiture extended to nature's surfaces. But Pre-Raphaelitism went beyond documentation. Little truths were pressed hard for transcendence. Each leaf was itself and more. Medieval symbolism was revived in the hope that a natural supernaturalism, as Thomas Carlyle called it, would follow. Like today's space sagas, the Pre-Raphaelite goal was a strained juxtaposition of the rational scientific outlook with a nostalgia for a simpler, more cohesive past.
If photography had never been invented, Pre-Raphaelite canvases would have looked just the same. The brotherhood's sources, the hard edge and cold light of late medieval and early Renaissance pictures gleaned through engravings, were independent of photography. If the brotherhood had never met, 19th-century English landscape photography would still have confronted nature close up. What the British art historian Michael Bartram seeks to discover is that set of conditions to which photography and painting
responded, the milieu that made them appear so alike.
Of course, this is not simply a matter of mutual influence, although direct borrowings were made by each medium. While Mr. Bartram is sure to list the ways photographs were used by painters like Millais, and the extent to which some photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron were influenced by Pre-Raphaelite iconography, he is never caught in the cul-de-sac of influence-chasing. Both photography and painting sought to supplant outworn academic conventions with the precision of factual representation. The y pursued ``common ends by different means.''
Bartram has a palpable love of the literature of the Victorian era, which he brings to bear on the imagery of both Pre-Raphaelite painting and photography. He recognizes what many other art historians do not: that painters and photographers read, as well as see. Consequently, Bartram's large topics, like pictorial storytelling and ``botanizing,'' as well as his rewarding excursions into the meaning of the ``touseled, tumbling'' full head of hair adorning so many Pre-Raphaelite women, or the role of the child in art, are squarely set in the wider context of Victorian literature and ideas. Moreover, Bartram has absorbed the language of the Victorians and is given to thick description. His vocabulary extends to the plentiful illustrations, most of which have not been widely circulated.
Midway through Bartram's study, one is tempted to ask just what English landscape photography was not Pre-Raphaelite. Unlike the nuanced and lyrical invocations of nature made by the French photographers, the English were overwhelmingly inclined to clear, intelligible views. In part the problem lies with Bartram, whose work deserves an extensive summary and conclusion, organizing and analyzing the concerted intellectual and social forces that came together in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In part the problem lies with the movement itself. If they were a true avant-garde, the Pre-Raphaelites' moment was very brief. Their slogan, truth to nature, had ample precedent in English watercolor and in the writing of Wordsworth and Walter Scott. In fact, the brotherhood was linked in many ways to the cultural life of the 19th century.
The medievalizing of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and photographers moved them away from Photo-Realism to a dreamy and sensuous image. If nature could not be made to yield greater truth, it might be made to yield beauty. Truth to nature turned in on itself, and came to include the visualization of mental and emotional states. The literalness of Millais's scene-setting gave way to the fantasies of Rossetti. The change, as one wishes Bartram had recorded, represented a widespread and self-conscious shift i n the role of art. Art was made for the sake of art. The world of appearances, so full of disappointments and unanswered questions, became the indelicate province of politics and science.